Science in the public view: A good gamble

It was risky to run a gigantic particle accelerator up to its highest energy level yet in such a visible way. But it's time for lower barriers between scientists and the public.

Researchers at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, did something gutsy but smart Tuesday: they revved the Large Hadron Collider up to a new energy level in full public view.

Happily for the dozens of scientists and engineers in attendance, the LHC successfully reached its goal of a 7 TeV energy level --two beams of protons each at 3.5 trillion electron-volt energies whizzed in opposite directions and eventually collided at several points in the gigantic underground ring-shaped particle accelerator.

Scientific projects by and large are hardly cloaked in secrecy. But the LHC's run Tuesday was much more exposed than your typical project: anyone interested could watch the proceedings via Webcast, and CERN sent status events over Twitter.

"Unfortunately beam 2 was no good...we had to dump it...going for new injection," read one solemn tweet. An hour and half later, though, the tone changed: "Experiment have seen collisions!!!!!!!!!!!...First time in the history!!!!!!!!!!!! World record!!!!!!!!"

Researchers packed into the LHC control center were jubilant when their collider reached a series of goals Tuesday. This shot was from a public Webcast of the event.
Researchers packed into the LHC control center were jubilant when their collider reached a series of goals Tuesday. This shot was from a public Webcast of the event. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

But even if the LHC run had flopped--and indeed success only came on a third attempt Tuesday--the project probably would have gained something.

That's because many of the challenges the LHC faces have nothing to do with the formidable technical obstacles of building and operating a ring 26.7 km in circumference that can observe what happens when two beams of protons moving at 99.99 percent the speed of light run into each other. It's convincing people that the LHC has value at all.

The general public these days is hardly enthusiastic in general about large-scale science projects such as the LHC. Indeed, the public doesn't express enthusiasm for any sort of science at all, despite fondness for television, mobile phones, antibiotics, light bulbs, satellite navigation systems, and other fruits of the scientific method.

Understanding the origins of the universe, the nature of dark matter, the particulars of the elusive Higgs boson--these LHC challenges leave a lot of people uninspired. It's much easier to fixate on dramatic possibilities such as the collider spawning Earth-gobbling quantum black holes, a risk (PDF) that persists in public imaginings despite being soundly rebutted by the American Physical Society (PDF) and other credible sources.

So scientists could be forgiven if they want to leave the ranting mob out of the picture. Why on earth, then, did they instead offer a live Webcast of the LHC ramp-up?

The hope of good publicity, of course. But the situation is a more complex matter than just letting people watch a big scientific event.

CERN showed LHC status reports live, including this view of the two proton beams, represented by blue and red lines, converging at the experimental sites where collisions were observed.
CERN showed LHC status reports live, including this view of the two proton beams, represented by blue and red lines, converging at the experimental sites where collisions were observed. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

What the LHC did was let people watch a human interest drama. We got to see scientists at the facility jubilant when the LHC reached its record energy. We saw them pining that they happened to be off duty during the event rather than at the helm in one of the control centers. We saw them fretting when a problem dealt a temporary setback to the LHC run.

In short, we saw emotion. Scientific results aren't about emotion, but emotion makes people--including scientists--tick. People who don't understand subatomic physics do understand the narrative of triumph over adversity.

It therefore was arguably even a good thing that there were hiccups on the way to 7 TeV: that pesky magnet and power supply that messed up the early runs helped to turn LHC's staff into protagonists in a story.

The LHC already had hit several bumps on its way to operation, and CERN, bracing itself for more, offered the view that it's tough to build something as complicated and original as the LHC. It's a fair point, but public failures have tarnished the accelerator's reputation, and that imparted more urgency to the very visible events on Tuesday.

Some of the first tracks of particles created by protons colliding show toward the center of this computer view of an LHC experiment called Atlas.
Some of the first tracks of particles created by protons colliding show toward the center of this computer view of an LHC experiment called Atlas. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The facility operators pulled it off, though. The color commentary from collider and experiment leaders was sometimes technical, but it didn't take a Ph.D. to understand the charts showing the gradual convergence of the two beams, a necessary step on the way to proton collisions.

Impressively, they even started showing off early results from Tuesday's proton collisions. "Let The Physics Begin!" declared one LHC experiment's blog triumphantly upon seeing the spawn of the proton collisions twirling away through the Atlas apparatus.

Next up for the LHC is a run lasting not a few hours, but 18 to 24 months, an unusually long span for CERN accelerators but one that will allow LHC to make up for time lost after a big setback in 2008. The run will be at the same 7 TeV energy level of Tuesday's test.

The vast majority of humanity didn't watch the LHC's Webcast Tuesday and will remain as uninterested in tuning into the next chapter. But even the primary audience was researchers, students, and technophiles, that's an important improvement over nobody at all.

There's one more reason the public Webcast was important, though, and it's more subtle than just the idea of offering the public a story. We, the public, are collectively paying for the LHC, and making the run public meant the researchers themselves had to keep that fact in mind.

There are plenty of practical barriers between physicists and ordinary people, but too many of them are gratuitous. I don't expect the public to regain its faith in science anytime soon, but rebuilding the ties between the public and the researchers, or at least opening the doors, will help the public be more sympathetic and the researchers be more honest with their ultimate audience.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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